Into the Wilderness

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The choral world is currently processing the consensus that emerged last week that singing in groups is one of the highest risk activities for spreading Covid-19 and that we shouldn’t expect to restart rehearsals until there’s an effective vaccine.* There’s a fair bit of denial going on, and occasional anger (to be expected, as the first stages of grief), but we are collectively gradually moving on to ask: okay, so now what?

Before all this broke last week, I had scheduled a post on a thought experiment about what it would take to return to normal, but I deleted it as it was overtaken by events. I suppose it’s worth noting that the primary thing I was contemplating as a pre-requisite for a return to rehearsal – a robust contact-tracing regime – may still actually be fine for those countries like New Zealand and South Korea that have succeeded in getting their community transmission rates right down. But for those of us in the UK and US where not only are transmission rates still high, but there doesn’t appear to be much political will to reduce them, the advice that we shouldn’t revert to our beloved super-spreading habits until there’s a vaccine remains more realistic for now.

So, now we are staring the despair in the face, what do we do?

In some ways, now I know we’re in remote mode for the long haul, I’m less anxious than when I couldn’t envisage the medium-term future. Now we can plan. And at least we have two months of remote rehearsing under our belts now, so we have some sense of what is possible in this mode. It is time to move out of the holding pattern of just living week-to-week and start to think strategically again: what kind of arc or trajectory will our musical journey take us on over the coming months?

A concept I have returned to as I have started to imagine this future is the distinction between rational and experiential objectives. Whilst some things just don’t work in online rehearsals, there are some realistic longer-term learning goals we can set ourselves that we know will stand us in good stead when we can finally make music in person again. Having a programme of ongoing skill-development helps maintain a sense of purpose. When you ask yourself ‘what’s the point?’ the improvements you are seeing in those specific aspects of your craft can provide an answer.

Those are our rational objectives. And the future-focus they provide are vital. But they are not enough. We can’t just live in hope for better days to come (pace Protestant work ethic), we need the living itself to be satisfying on the way through. Experiential objectives focus our attention on how it feels to participate in our online rehearsals.

As with the rational objectives, there are some specific and fundamental elements of what we do that we can’t currently provide. You can’t recreate online that sonic-kinaesthetic buzz of what barbershoppers would variously call, ‘busting a chord’, ‘singing with the angels’, or ‘ringing the snot out of it’.

But we can nonetheless provide genuine pleasures: social connectedness, laughter, a sense of achievement. We can address a variety of needs: belonging, esteem, aesthetic. As I write this, a personal goal has come into focus of setting the experiential goal of providing a Flow state – not a simple task via video conferencing, but a good one to aim for.

I fully acknowledge that all this is darning round the edges of a gaping hole: those who say you can’t have choir without singing together are of course right. But we have sung together in the past, and we will sing together again in the future. Our job for now is to get safely through the wilderness together, using the resources and imagination we have at hand to equip us to rebuild once we eventually arrive in the promised land.

Some people may decide, not unreasonably, that all this doesn’t give them the experience they want from choral singing and go off to develop a different pastime for now. All we can do is wish them well and look forward to seeing them in the future. I’ll still be there, keeping the music warm for them.

But we needn’t worry about whether people will come back once we can safely sing together again. There’ll be re-building to do, for sure, but there will also be a lot of pent-up desire to energise that work. Singing together is fundamental to being human, you can’t stop people doing it, as you know if you’ve ever been on a train after a football match.

One of Dale Carnegie’s pieces of advice for coping with worry is to accept the very worst case scenario in your heart as likely to happen, and then put your energies into improving on it. This post is part of the process of building my coping mechanisms for the coming drought, and I share it in the spirit of reciprocation for all the practical ideas and moral support my choral colleagues have given me, not just in the last few weeks, but throughout my musical life.

*The full webinar that worked through the reasoning is here, and the Barbershop Harmony Society have published a useful summary that applies pretty well across all choral genres. A useful overview of risk factors that puts singing in a wider context is here.

Yes, yes and yes! Great post Liz.

I'm pondering what to write on my own blog today. Part of me is thinking "what's the point?" How much can one write about online singing experiences or bemoaning the fact that we can't sing together in person? And isn't writing about other aspects of choirs and harmony singing a bit like putting salt on the wound?

In all honesty I don't think I can write a weekly blog for the next year (or however long it takes until we're back singing in person) about choirs and singing when there isn't any!

I've not taken the online plunge as I don't have any regular groups. So I can't really write with any authority about that experience.

It might seem a little mundane, but have you given any thought about what you plan to write in the foreseeable future?

Hi Chris,
I'm actually trying not to write about remote rehearsing all the time at the mo, though as that is the huge learning curve I'm on, topics keep coming up. (I blog mostly to work out what I think about things!) And my current arranging project is generating material too.

In the longer term, not sure. There are a couple of themes I've noted as things to develop when I get headspace, and which aren't immediately connected with my week-in week-out musicking, so they may get their chance as the months go by.

I guess one way to look at this would be: what do you want to use the time for until you can safely get back to your real work? There may be a musical/development journey there that would feed your blog...?

Anyway, sending hugs. In the context of the overall situation, ours is quite a niche, esoteric grief, but it is a deep one.

I'm not sure that there will come a point when I can "get back to my real work" - might be retired or have a different job by then! Need to make some money somehow.

As someone pointed out the other day, our job is supposed to comfort and create community and it's precisely what we're not being able to do. Yes, niche but painful. Hugs to you too.

Some people may decide, not unreasonably, that all this doesn’t give them the experience they want from choral singing and go off to develop a different pastime for now. All we can do is wish them well and look forward to seeing them in the future. I’ll still be there, keeping the music warm for them.

I feel this way, and also incredibly guilty that I do. My chorus gets together online every week, with (not unexpectedly) a higher ratio of socialising to singing than pre-lockdown, and I don't feel like these sessions do it for me at all, even the singing parts.

I know I should remember "you get out what you put in" and all the rest, but I'd really rather be doing something other than hanginng around on Zoom like a lost fart for an hour. And I don't feel like I can say that, when so many others in the chorus do enjoy the social side more than I do, and/or are making such an effort to keep things ticking over.

I guess I'm missing how it used to be, and reluctant to make any kind of explicit break with it.

It's hard. I'm sure your chorus understands, and looks forward to seeing you back on the other side. I'm not sure how much feeling guilty is a useful expenditure of emotional energy, particularly on an ongoing basis. You could consider offering yourself the same level of acceptance you'd probably extend to someone else.

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